Six UN peacekeepers among 9 troops killed in Mali attacks

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UN soldiers patrol in the northern Malian city of Kidal on July 27, 2013

UN soldiers patrol in the northern Malian city of Kidal on July 27, 2013 (AFP Photo/Kenzo Tribouillard)

Bamako (AFP) - Six UN peacekeepers were killed and some 30 wounded on Friday when suspected Islamists attacked their base in northern Mali, officials said, while three Malian soldiers died in an ambush as jihadists intensify attacks in the restive region.

The six Guinean peacekeepers were killed in an early morning assault on a camp in the northeastern town of Kidal belonging to the United Nations' MINUSMA, according to a Guinean source in the mission and a military source in Conakry.

Malian Islamist group Ansar Dine, responsible for several previous assaults, claimed the attack by a "Mauritanian jihadist" as "a message to the crusader aggressors and all those who support them" in a statement carried by a Mauritanian news agency.

The latest attacks highlighted the vulnerability of Mali's sprawling, arid north, where UN troops and Malian soldiers are struggling in their fight against jihadists who seized vast swathes of territory in 2012.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the "massive and complex" attack on the MINUSMA base, warning that targeting peacekeepers constituted a war crime and pledging to support the Malian government.

Suicide bombers drove a vehicle into the base between two rocket launches, then blew it up, the Guinean source in the UN mission said.

The raid coincided with a visit to northern Mali by the new chief of MINUSMA, Mahamat Saleh Annadif, who said the raid was an "odious and irresponsible act" that highlighted the "confusion in the ranks of the enemies of peace".

Annadif was in Kidal a week after a peace pact eased tensions in the town, where the arrival of members of a pro-government group early in February had upset the former rebels in the Coordination of Movements of the Azawad.

Azawad is the name the traditionally nomadic Tuareg people of the desert use for territory they regard as their homeland, straddling the southern Sahara and the Sahel.

- Timbuktu attack -

In a separate attack, three Malian soldiers were killed and two others were wounded near the fabled city of Timbuktu, a Malian military source said.

"Three of our men died today between Timbuktu and Goundam when they were ambushed by jihadists," a Malian officer told AFP. "Two others were wounded but their lives are not in danger."

The defence ministry confirmed what it said was a "cowardly" strike.

Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said there was a pressing need to secure the north.

"We have to find a solution to this," he said. "Kidal cannot remain like this... where attacks occur on a daily basis and the international community and we ourselves look on."

On Thursday, a customs officer and two civilians were killed in another Islamist strike in the northern town of Hombori, two days after three Malian soldiers died in an explosion while they were patrolling the frontier near Burkina Faso.

The latest attack came a week after at least four suspected jihadists and a Malian soldier were killed in clashes at a UN camp for police officers from Nigeria in Timbuktu.

It was also a day after the fabled city had celebrated the restoration of its greatest treasures -- earthen mausoleums dating to medieval times that were destroyed during an Islamist takeover in 2012.

Responsibility for the raid on Timbuktu was claimed by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Mali's north of the country continues to be beset by violence having fallen under the control of Tuareg-led rebels and jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda in 2012.

The Islamists sidelined the Tuareg to take sole control, and although they were largely ousted by a French-led military operation in January 2013, extremist groups still pose a threat.